Stories about surprise DNA discoveries have become commonplace, whether it’s about a detective solving an old crime or a 23AndMe user finding a new sibling. It only makes sense that DNA testing has become a critical tool for genealogists looking for clues to get past the walls created by lack of information in family history research.
Ancestry DNA kits (the most popular sold in the US) test autosomal chromosomes, the DNA shared with both biological parents. This provides a great overall look at heritage, but did you know there’s a less talked about DNA test that focuses directly on the paternal line?
Y-DNA tells the direct story of a father’s heritage. Our male ancestors have carried the Y-chromosome along their migrations throughout history, passing it from father to son virtually unchanged. As such, males can trace their paternal ancestry back thousands of years.
Because the Y-chromosome is male specific, females can’t take this test. (Sorry, ladies!) Women can, however, learn about their paternal line through the powers of persuasion. Ask a male directly related to a paternal grandfather to take the test. Biological relatives sharing the same paternal line include fathers, brothers (of the same father), paternal grandfathers, paternal uncles and paternal male cousins (with the same paternal grandfather). Remember: it’s not enough for the relative to be on a father’s side of the family tree, they must also share his same paternal line.
The true value of DNA results comes when we compare them to the results of individuals of suspected relation. Y-DNA can be used to verify whether two individuals descend from the same distant paternal ancestor, as well as connect us with others linked to our paternal line. For most, Y-DNA tracks the same lines as surnames, so this test can also be used to answer questions such as whether two men with the same surname from different parts of the country share a common ancestor, or whether two variant spellings of a surname have a common root.
Y-chromosome testing can also uncover a male’s haplogroup, the ancient group of people from which one’s paternal (or maternal) ancestors descended. When humans left Africa thousands of years ago, they departed in small groups that migrated to different areas of the world. Over many generations, each group developed distinct mutations in their DNA. Because haplogroups were formed so long ago, this result would reflect our very, very ancient ancestry. It’s quite possible to share a haplogroup with no recent ancestral connections.
It’s important to remember the limitations of Y-DNA testing. There is currently no Y-DNA test that can determine whether two people are brothers, cousins, or some other close paternal relationship. Results will show who shares our Y-DNA, meaning we’re paternally related, but the exact nature of that relationship will need to be determined through additional testing and research.
FamilyTreeDNA.com (FTDNA) is the only company that currently offers a true Y-DNA test kit. Other companies test Y-DNA, but only divulge the descendant’s haplogroup. FTDNA also boasts one of the world’s largest Y-DNA databases, giving a greater chance of finding connections and information.
We can’t expect any DNA test to do the hard work of genealogy research, but a single swab can help build a fuller history of our family tree’s paternal roots.
Carol DiPirro-Stipkovits is a National Genealogical Society member, Association of Professional Genealogists member as well as a guest lecturer and freelance writer. Send questions or comments to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.